Burnout: identifying symptoms and when to act



# tags: Events , Meetings Industry

Covid-19 had an impact on our lives that went far beyond confinement. It led many people to rethink their careers and life choices.

Phenomena such as “Great Resignation”, “Soft Quitting” and “Burnout” occurred across many sectors, and events were no exception.

Some concepts

The great resignation

The pandemic contributed to millions of people voluntarily leaving their work and the area of tourism and hospitality was one that lost many professionals. And this trend seems to continue in the post-pandemic period. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, dropouts in 2021 are mainly in the 18 to 29 age group, due to wages, lack of career opportunities, a feeling of lack of respect at work, issues related to monitoring children, and lack of flexibility. Many professionals began to rethink their priorities and left the sector in search of other opportunities. This impacts the human resources of the most varied companies.

The quiet quitting

It’s not about giving up in this case but working within the confines of the job description. In other words, professionals do not go beyond defined working hours and tasks to be carried out. They are available for new challenges and value work-life balance.


The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on May 27, 2019 the inclusion of burnout in the list of diseases. According to the WHO website, burnout is considered an occupational syndrome and results from “chronic stress in the workplace that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterised by: “lack of energy or exhaustion, increased mental distance from work or work-related feelings of negativism or cynicism, and reduced professional effectiveness”.

Always frantic, with no time for processing

The sector has always lived with stress, in fact, event management is considered one of the most stressful professions that exists, according to rankings produced by various international sources, and it is easy to imagine why. An event must take place at that time, on that day, and there is no second attempt.

The return to in-person events is being marked by a great intensity of work. Deadlines have shortened, events are decided at the last minute, leaving less and less time for execution. For some professionals this is just too much. On the other hand, the pandemic brought telecommuting, changing routines and habits, the consequences of which will only be revealed in the coming years.

Already in 2016, Skift, an American editorial project with great relevance in our industry, published an article about the fact that some good event organisers give up their careers. Among the problems of this profession, which are common to several markets, were issues such as lack of recognition, tangible and intangible; micromanagement; burnout; little autonomy; lack of support; restrictions in terms of creativity; lack of investment; balance between personal and professional life; among others. About burnout, the article points out that it is not always linked to stress, although this is a factor. It can be caused by lack of support and control, poor work-life balance, poor work environment, and even the wrong career choice.

In 2022, Skift returned to this topic, as the intensity with which the events returned required reflection and clues to face the problem. The article again highlights the differences between stress, which is inevitable in this line of work, and burnout. Stress, for example, is momentary (lasting more or less time), but, ultimately, it does not remove the possibility of someone functioning on a day-to-day basis. Burnout can arise when someone experiences “excessive” stress and for long periods of time. Burnout affects emotions, motivation, it can even lead to depression and be highly disabling.

In the first person: too much work led to sick leave

A. works at a venue. In the last months of 2022, she had to go on sick leave. “Before going on vacation, I was already feeling that I was uninterested, there was a lot that I couldn’t finish alone, I had a lot of unfinished business, I felt a lot of pressure”. This pressure came from a very big event to organise, and which ran into the lack of answers and decision. After a while, A. practically had to change everything, “because it wasn’t quite like that”.

During the vacation period, she was unable to “turn off”, and when she returned to work, she continued feeling the same. “My head was always on fire, night and day, especially at night. I didn’t sleep. At night I sent myself emails so I wouldn’t forget things”, she says. Exhaustion has arrived. After the event, “I’ve crumbled”. “I had to stop and go to the doctor, I had reached my limit”.

The employer supported her. “Everyone recognises that I can’t say no, and that’s also what led me to this situation”, she confesses. The doctor gave her a sick leave for a month (which was later renewed) and medication. “But I was at home and I was discouraged, sad, I didn’t feel like doing anything, with headaches, apathetic”, she recalls. She returned to work after a month and a half, despite the doctor’s advice. “I felt bad being at home, so I came back in bits and pieces”, she says.

Upon returning, she decided “to change the strategy a little bit, I have to look at myself more”. This means “trying to say no to some things, distributing work better”. A. remembers that “I put in 100% at work and left my family a little behind” and that is something that will really had to change.”

Asked whether the pandemic has reinforced existing problems, A. replies that it has, since she got used to not having hours for anything. “Now the computer stays in the company, otherwise the temptation is too much”.

Lately, “I thought about giving up my job”, but “I love what I do. It is the job of my life.”

In the first person: changing jobs B. worked for a sporting events company and had years of experience in the events industry. “It is an area that demands a lot from us, the phone rings at any time”, she laments. “There were days when I managed to work from 9 to 5, but on the other hand I had to be available 24 hours a day”.

One of the problems in the sector is the tendency to see the professional as a “do it all”, warns the interviewee. “It’s always a stress area, things have to happen at a certain time, but with a distribution of tasks it’s always easier. In my case, my role was 360º and, therefore, I delivered events from A to Z. I did everything from planning the races, I had to take care of the athletes’ travels, meetings with Town Halls and institutions, was responsible for all merchandising, production” , shares B.. Financially, she had the notion that she had a salary a little above average. But that fact became “relative”. What does it really mean to be well paid? In B.’s case, burnout was motivated by the work itself.

When she started to fail, her boss said to her: “I understand that you are tired, but it will always be like this. Either you can handle it or you can’t.” It made her reflect. “I decided to change areas. I really like the events area, but I decided that I was going to change. When I woke up, my heart was already racing thinking about what I had to do”.

In this process, she was followed by a therapist, whose sessions ended when she quit. “I highly recommend it. It’s a giant support. Therapy, in my case, was essential to achieve clarity of thought and decision-making. We get into a whirlpool and then it’s hard to get out. If a therapist is good, he can make us stop, think and prioritise”, says B.

One day after delivering her last event our interviewee quit. Her boss was very understanding. “He highlighted the courage I needed to do it. I have to prioritise myself, I’m 35 years old, I still don’t have children, but I intend to, I want to have a life. All areas have problems, but there are limits. I cannot conceive all of this for myself alone, let alone in a family”.

She then decided to change areas, counting with all her family’s support. Today she feels good, but “of course I miss events and feel a bit nostalgic”.

Signs that something is wrong

There are several symptoms that may indicate problems in terms of mental health and that should be a warning about the need for intervention. Marta Santos, Associate Professor at CPUP – Psychology Center of the University of Porto, lists these symptoms: “The feeling of permanent tiredness, headaches, changes in appetite and sleep, feelings of failure, dissatisfaction with performance and slowness in achieving of work, tendency towards isolation, difficulty in meeting schedules or increased absenteeism, are some examples”. Once this set of signs is identified, there is specialised and individual help to consider, but, according to Marta Santos, one cannot forget “the responsibility that the organisation and working conditions assume in producing these impacts on health. It will therefore be necessary to draw up a diagnosis of the psychosocial risk factors and intervene in the working conditions that may be at the origin of these problems”. The psychologist details that, “in the definition of action and prevention plans, it is usual to have awareness programs for key interlocutors of companies to the definition of gatekeepers (workers who would not necessarily have to be specialists in mental health, but with training to watch for signs of distress, provide initial emotional support, and referral to necessary services).

Marta Santos advises event companies, whose professionals work in a scenario of intense pressure, to carry out “an identification of the working and employment conditions of these professionals in order to be able to make a diagnosis of the psychosocial risk factors that they may be exposed and consequent impacts on health”. This knowledge can allow “developing an action plan that allows creating the necessary conditions to carry out a well-done, sustainable job, preserving the health and well-being of professionals”.

The pandemic will have exacerbated mental health issues. A study on “Mental Health in Times of Pandemic (SM-COVID19)”, published by the Portuguese Ministry of Health, aimed to assess the impact of the pandemic “on the mental health and well-being of the general population and health professionals, taking into account dimensions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, burnout and resilience, among others”. The study indicates that “about 25% of participants have moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.”

With regard to professional groups, “a higher percentage of individuals in burnout stands out among professionals in nursing homes (43%), professionals in the public service area (e.g., merchants, shopkeepers, restaurants, hotels, aesthetics ; 38%), and factory workers (36%)”. Other studies, according to Marta Santos, also “point in the same direction: the pandemic has aggravated (and given visibility to) mental health problems”.

Also in relation to the study “Mental Health in Pandemic Times (SM-COVID19)”, it indicates that “the new forms of work, namely remote work, are not associated with symptoms linked to anxiety and depression and 83% of respondents said that some alternative forms of work organisation can be seen as positive (e.g., work at home)”. “Other studies are less categorical”, recalls Marta Santos, “pointing to some difficulties associated with remote working (extending working hours, greater interference with life outside of work, difficulty in learning new things, difficulty associated with maintaining a collective of work). Naturally, the most positive or negative aspects are very much anchored with certain characteristics of the work, the workers and the conditions/organisation of work. For example, the fact that you are a newbie or an expert in a given function can be decisive in the way you work remote”, says the psychologist.

Balance, coherence, and sensibility

Sandra Matos, from Please Disturb Tourism Experts, works in the field of tourism, providing training and mentoring to companies. Within tourism, the events area is associated with intense pressure and work peaks. Sandra Matos believes that “to work at events we have to have a bit of a ‘healthy madness’ and know how to deal with this adrenaline in a positive way, as a motivation and not as something aggressive”. An event professional must “enjoy their work, have a passion for making it happen and enjoy the end result. Know the importance of your role, your function, for the success of each event. From the individual to the collective”, she says.

For a good mental health, professionals must, in the first place, take care of themselves. “Only if we are well can we give others all our energy and dedication. It turns out to be a bit like the issue of masks on the plane, first we put ours on and then we help others to put on theirs”, says the specialist. This can include “maintaining simple daily rituals in these times of greater pressure, such as maintaining a correct diet, sleeping well, taking advantage of rest times to turn off your mind with activities other than being tied to a smartphone, releasing tension by walking around nature, meditation, doing some physical exercise, having a hobby we like, spending quality time, even if just a little, with family and friends… Disconnect to reconnect”. Basically, “knowing when you have to do your best in the production of events and accepting those moments, and then knowing when you have to stop and really switch off, so that you can recover energies for your body and mind”.

Balance, according to Sandra Matos, “is in these moments of pause, where we must disconnect from the adrenaline and connect with ourselves, with others and with nature”.

Adrenaline is something that moves many people in this area, but at what point does it become harmful? The leader of Please Disturb points some topics that she works in training teams and individuals.

“Awareness: being fully aware of the moment we are in, at work or at rest, and accepting how we are going to deal with each of these moments. Getting to know ourselves is fundamental to this awareness. Knowing how we are going to deal with our emotions, how we react to stressful situations and, above all, being 100% present in every moment, in full.

Connection: the balance involves never losing connection with ourselves, with others and with nature, whether we are at work or at rest. This brings us to daily rituals, which should not be neglected, even during stress peaks. Often, it is enough to simply stop for a few minutes to breathe, to connect again and avoid more impulsive responses, for example.

Commitment: give our best when we are working, be the best version of ourselves, but also take full care of ourselves when we are at rest. The same delivery and dedication we have in producing an event must be the same as when we stop and have to take care of ourselves, to switch off.

Consistency: our life is made up of small decisions and daily habits and not of great deeds that only bring us that temporary happiness. In the consistency of our behaviour lies our well-being. And again this goes through the holistic approach of taking care of ourselves.”

It is important to be able to anticipate risky situations before reaching a state of exhaustion or burnout. When detecting these signs, professional help may be needed. “And we human beings find it very difficult to take this step: stop and ask for help. Society has ‘taught’ us to always be producing, to be strong and resilient, not to give up. But asking for help is not at all a sign of weakness, but of emotional intelligence, to avoid more serious situations”, advises Sandra Matos.

And what can be the role of event companies? “Everything goes back to the word balance, coherence and sensibility. Each leader must have the ability to know how to take care of their teams and have a genuine concern for all the stakeholders with whom they work”. The leader must “understand the needs of each one and harmonise his personal objectives with the objectives of the company.

Work on the emotional salary in addition to the financial salary, which also has to be fair”. A leader must promote teamwork, “in co-creation and collaboration, so that each employee feels that he belongs to each project and that his individual performance is fundamental to the success of the team, of everyone. Know how to listen, actively. Be alert. Even in digital events, we are all people working with people”, she concludes.

© Cláudia Coutinho de Sousa Newsroom